Saturday, January 19, 2002


Opponents of embryonic stem cell and cloning research (ESCCR) have staked out their position based on a simple axiom from which flows an articulate ethical opposition to this science. The axiom is direct, concise and emotionally charged: any human embryo is a human being. From here it is no leap at all to rejecting any benefi ts of ESCCR on the ground that the destruction of human beings to benefi t others is ethically unacceptable, especially considering the total disparity in power between the sacrificed and the saved.

ESCCR supporters’ response has generally been twofold. First, proponents disavow, with minimal supporting argument, the above axiom and argue, in the same breath, the truly earth-shattering potential benefits of ESCCR – which comes across as a logically bankrupt attempt to bootstrap the former proposition by virtue of the strength of the latter. Second, supporters point out, correctly, that Pandora’s box is open: ESCCR will continue, at least today.

Proponents of ESCCR should be troubled by the state of the debate for two reasons, one practical, one philosophical. The current discussion seems to assume there will come a time when no new embryonic stem cells will be needed. What if this is untrue and a continuing supply is needed, not only for research, but for actual treatments? What if treatments require the use of embryos cloned from individual patients, as the need for genetic matches suggests they will? Absent a sound ethical basis for the use of embryonic stem cells and cloned embryos for research, and ultimately treatment, the practice will come under new attack with each development. Attacks will be most viable, and thus the risk of total banning will be greatest, when actual, clinically proven treatments become widely available. At that time, the temporary fiction of using only cells from embryos left over from in vitro fertilizations will vanish; embryos created or cloned specifically for stem cell harvest will be needed, and in volume. And when the benefits are concrete – cured Parkinson’s, a new heart that genetically matches the recipient – the glaring juxtaposition of the boons of this science and its costs will force the debate back to its fundamental terms, if an ethical consensus is not sooner reached.

Except for a jaded minority, ESCCR proponents don’t want to be labeled – or think of themselves – as moral outlaws. An ethical justifi cation must be developed and articulated, allowing supporters to claim the moral high ground as proudly and sincerely as do ESCCR opponents. And, upon examina-tion, such an ethos must be extendable to the larger issue of human cloning, for the creation and use of an embryo for experimentation and/or treatment is either morally justifiable or not, irrespective of whether the embryo is made from two persons’ DNA or one. This essay constructs such an ethical justifi cation, beginning with the opponents’ home ground: the theology underlying the axiom that a human embryo is a human being. ESCCR opponents tend to be originalists in Constitutional scholarship (see, i.e., Ann Coulter’s July 26, 2001 piece on National Review Online), chary of any broadening of civil liberties beyond the explicit text, yet they ignore – purposely, one suspects -- the complete absence of any specific foundation for the embryo axiom in the Bible (or any other fundamental religious document). Even if we adopt a Brennan-like expansive view of the Bible, possible justifications for the embryo axiom are hard to fi nd (the proscription of Onanism might support inferentially the idea that sperm is to be used exclusively for procreation, but it’s a stretch from there to embryos are people).

Try as one might, one finds no basis in the Bible for the position that an embryo, created in a petri dish, removed from marriage, any volition to conceive a child, or even the physical act of love, is a human being. In Genesis, God breathes life into Adam, in marked contrast to His wholesale creation of animals, establishing that men have souls and beasts do not (three year sentences for dog-tossing notwithstanding). Eve is cursed to bear children, Biblically the exclusive method for new people to enter the world. God tells Jeremiah (1:5): "I knew you before I formed you in your mother's womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world." While a favorite of pro-life advocates, this verse can certainly be read to support the idea that the soul attaches only after implantation in the womb (whether by natural migration following intercourse or by direct impantation of an embryo) and not on fertilization. Contrast the springing full-grown and whatnot found in classical mythology – might we not consider Aphrodite, said in one version to have sprang from the foam that gathered round the severed genitals of Uranus as they floated in the sea, the first clone? Relying exclusively on the Bible, one might argue that persons born by Caesarian lack souls – and whither MacDuff, torn from the womb?

Opponents state that each embryo is genetically unique, with he potential to become a living, breathing person, ignoring the case of identical twins. Twins aside, genetic uniqueness, while a statistical likelihood, is by no means a mathematical certainty. Who’s to say that, out of the hundred billion or so homo sapiens that have lived, two or more didn’t end up with the same genetic makeup? And a test tube embryo’s potential to grow into a person can only be realized by a further manmade intervention – implantation. The biggest problem with the uniqueness/potential argument is that there is nothing particular to human beings about it; whatever we can say about the genetic uniqueness and potential to become an living, breathing creature of a human embryo is equally true of a cat, dog or chimp embryo. In that respect we are just like the animals.
Whatever metaphysical characteristic separates us, makes us more than just animals, is not grounded in DNA or the mechanics of reproduction, and no one has mustered any proof that that characteristic
attaches at conception, particularly in a test tube. Opponents raise the specter of creating hideously abnormal, pain-wracked defectives as we grope our way towards mastering this science. This risk – and it is one that will be realized, tragically – is the same risk of all exploration. As long as we proceed in good faith, doing our best to minimize such occurrences, we need fear neither the judgment of history nor that of Providence. The argument that this risk it too much to bear is often juxtaposed with allusions to Nazi atrocities, the clear implication being that American society’s veneer of civilization is in danger of being stripped to expose a nation of Mengeles, if we embrace ESCCR. I reject that and offer as the best evidence the vehemence of the current debate. American ethical values are up to the task of applying this science for good.

In their New Republic Online piece (posted 7/27/01 for the 8/06/01 issue) arguing for a total cloning ban, Dr. Kass and Professor Callahan warn against a wave of eugenics and the ushering-in of the “post-human future”. Their opposition embraces the anti-ESCCR arguments discussed above, along with concerns about creating classes of citizens based on their genetics. With all due respect to their sincere and well-reasoned presentation, that horse has left the barn. Is there any aspect of life where discrimination on account of genetics does not impinge? What high schooler chooses to ask out the ugly date, seeks tutoring from the slow-witted, or picks the clumsy kid for basketball? Don’t companies hire based on all sorts of traits that are partly genetic, partly acquired? We’ve achieved – largely, at least – a legal system that guarantees equal treatment by the law for all, despite disparities in genetic traits that make people more or less attractive or acceptable to their fellow citizens. As a culture, we have come a long way but trail the law in treating folks equally. Why should we fear a world in which genetic disparities are chosen rather than the result of chance? Surely such will challenge our institutions, but those institutions have proven equal to challenges arguably far greater than ensuring civil rights for those that might receive pre-birth genetic treatments, and, equally importantly, those that don’t. As for the “post-human future”, perhaps appropriate recourse may be had to the prosaic: the contemporary mythology of Star Trekand star Wars. Anyone familiar with the adventures of Captain Kirk et al knows that humanity is not measured in terms of where one gets ones chromosomes, or even by the color of ones blood, but by the quality of ones spirit. Yoda assured Luke that "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter [flesh and blood]." No matter how skilled we might become in manipulating the biological makeup of man, his spirit will always be subject to a higher design.

Strangely absent from the debate has been any consideration of fundamental liberty interests. That the producers of sperm and eggs should have a superior say, even the only say, in the use of their gametes is a proposition wholly consistent with the American covenant. This argument will take on added, even preeminent, importance if opponents have their way and not only is funding denied, but ESCCR and/or cloning are prohibited (as in the House legislation passed 8/01/01). Two things are certain to flow from such action: a brain drain out of this country of our most talented bio-scientists (one has already announced his move to England) and a wave of civil disobedience on a level not seen since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Tragically for America, the first consequence will crest far in advance of the second, which will only kick in when the first miraculous benefits of this science become available overseas. Those that can’t travel to Europe to be aided by former American doctors applying the fruits of former American researchers’ efforts will quite understandably demand access to the science; a thriving black market in better health and healthier offspring may well spring up. This is a welcome prospect, as the fl outing of silly laws can lead to their repeal.

There is a moral imperative at work on the side of ESCCR and cloning research, of course. The duty in this regard goes beyond the curing of diseases and the avoidance of handicaps. More generally, we should work to improve man’s lot – indeed, to improve man himself, else what use are the pursuit of ethics and philosophy? Man’s unique gift, the ability and inclination to seek out knowledge about ourselves and our world, and make use of that knowledge, like any other human trait, will atrophy with disuse. The physical exploration of the earth is largely complete. The next clear challenge is to apply our gifts to ourselves. To reject this challenge rejects our essential humanity. Conducting ESCCR and embracing the benefi ts it may lead to, even though we stumble and err along the way, does not debase, but enriches human life. It nurtures both the spark of curiosity and the desire to make life better that define humanity.

(This piece was published in the September, 2001, issue of Telicom, the journal of the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry. This version contains minor revisions.)


If you read the well-articulated pieces opposing stem cell/cloning research as I have, you find that the ultimate objection goes not to the research methods, but to the ends which this science might logically lead: dramatic increases in health and lifespan, and genetic improvements in the human species. An almost superstitious "don't go there" mentality pervades the articles. Leon Kass, just appointed by the President to head the presidential commission on this science, is firmly in this camp, warning of a "post-human future". This is what truly angers me. I grew up embracing the speculative fiction of the thirties and forties, whose theme was the constant upward march of mankind, whether through better technology at home, exploration of the universe, or, frequently, the improvement of man himself. I believe in my bones that our destiny lies along that path, and to frustrate that journey betrays our essential humanity.